In the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling loosening campaign finance regulations, several brand-name super PACs emerged with big-name backers – Karl Rove's American Crossroads and President Obama-supporting Priorities USA, just to name a few.
But there will be many smaller groups making a major impact on the congressional landscape in 2014. As the super PAC era progresses, more and more groups that can take and spend unlimited money have popped up. Some high-powered strategists are going local, establishing big-money super PACs that focus on just one Senate or House race. And though their total spending doesn't come close to the larger entities, these individual organizations can pump millions of dollars into an individual congressional race -- as much as the biggest players ever do.
The groups run the gamut, from helping undermine Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's Democratic opponent, to promoting an effort to exploit Florida Rep. Trey Radel's political problems.
There are more to come that we don't even know about yet. These groups and others will file fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission by January 31, meaning we can better gauge their roles with a sense of how well-funded they are. With unlimited donations permitted, any of these groups could go from flat broke to major player with one penstroke across a check.
Here are 10 lesser-known super PACs that may make big news in 2014:
1) Kentuckians for Strong Leadership - Kentucky Senate
If you're a political junkie, the super PAC supporting GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has been making news for the past year. The group, which is staffed by longtime McConnell supporters and Crossroads operatives, has already spent $1.1 million on TV and radio ads savaging Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, and there will be more where that came from.
A source working with the organization said that they expect to be the "principal" GOP outside group involved in what could be the most expensive Senate race in the country in 2014. Like more and more super PACs these days, KSL also has an affiliated non-profit organization (the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition) which doesn't have to report its donors. The New York Times reported that Crossroads president Steven Law has lobbied against the formation of individualized super PACs in other Republican Senate races but that Crossroads has also worked to help set up groups along the lines of KSL in areas where donors and TV viewers have grown wary of the bigger group.
2) Put Alaska First - Alaska Senate
This super PAC has an audacious spending goal for a state with an important Senate contest -- and where money goes a long way. PAC adviser Jim Lottsfeldt, a donor to Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, said the group wants to raise and spend $3 to $5 million, equaling by itself the outside spending in Begich's 2008 race and tilting the conversation away from national politics and toward Alaska issues. Whether the group can follow through is an open question; some local super PACs soar while others fizzle. But Put Alaska First has already spent over $168,000 on TV ads pushing back against a national outside group that was advertising against Begich.
3) Freedom's Frontier - Alaska Senate
4) Alaska's Energy/America's Values - Alaska Senate
Begich isn't the only candidate with big-money local backing up north: Leading Republican candidates Mead Treadwell, the lieutenant governor, and Dan Sullivan, the former state natural resources commissioner, both have supportive super PACs backing them up. Again, it will take some time to judge their effects: Pro-Treadwell Freedom's Frontier hasn't had any activity yet, while the pro-Sullivan Alaska's Energy group has spent a little less than $16,000 on radio ads hitting Begich. Their fundraising bears watching, as does the possibility that either group takes on an attack dog role in the contested GOP primary.
5) Grow NC Strong - North Carolina Senate
This super PAC actually beat its favored candidate into the race. State House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, announced in June that he would run against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. A little earlier, in May, supporters set up Grow NC Strong to help Tillis's candidacy. The group raised over $100,000 in its first five weeks. Anti-Hagan outside money has been plentiful so far in 2013 and 2014, but the GOP primary for the right to face the Democrat in November is crowded. Most strategists view Tillis as the most electable Republican in the race, so outside money could play an important role in determining who wins the seat.
6) Wolfheel PAC - North Carolina Senate
Speaking of that outside money flowing into North Carolina: Roll Call found that outside groups already poured over $9 million, tilted over 2-to-1 against Hagan, into North Carolina in 2013, and more came quickly at the start of this year. That led to the recent formation of Wolfheel PAC, a pro-Hagan effort. Hagan has already been getting help from Senate Democrats' official-unofficial super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, and individualized efforts on behalf of Democratic senators have been both rarer and less financially successful than personal Republican super PACs. We'll have to wait and see if Wolfheel has a bigger impact.
7) Name unknown - Louisiana Senate
Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy's former chief of staff, strategist Josh Robinson, has told several media outlets that he plans to form a super PAC backing his former boss. This is another race where the PAC could have multiple targets: Cassidy is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, but he's also competing against retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness, a fellow Republican, to face Landrieu one-on-one in a post-November runoff. Maness is backed by several tea party-oriented outside groups, and Cassidy's super PAC could help.
If Cassidy wins, that would make him the second Louisiana senator with a personal super PAC. GOP Sen. David Vitter already has one raising money for his next move, whether it's a run for governor in 2015 or a reelection bid in 2016.
8) Pure PAC - Michigan Senate
Businessman Paul Mitchell started the PAC, which has spent over $100,000 advertising against Democratic Rep. Gary Peters, in the hope that it would "evoke a conversation" and help spark a strong challenge to Peters for the state's open Senate seat. It was the first TV ad of the race; bigger groups like Americans for Prosperity have gotten involved recently, and it's not clear how big Pure PAC's role will be going forward.
9) Values Are Vital - Florida's 19th Congressional District
Republican Rep. Trey Radel already faced a political problem after being arrested for cocaine possession last year, but this PAC assures he'll face a well-funded primary challenge exploiting that problem.
Former state Rep. Paige Kreegel, who lost the GOP nomination to Radel in 2012, is running again next year, and Values Are Vital already has over $1 million in hand to support his bid. (All of the money comes from two of Kreegel's donors from the last election.) Money is a major barrier of entry to primary challengers, but more and more supporters are recognizing how far a few hundred thousand dollars -- a pittance in the Senate world -- can go in a House primary. Super PACs played key roles in House primaries in North Carolina, Kentucky, California, Washington, and Connecticut in 2012, and that trend is likely to spread.
House super PACs don't need as much money to make an impact as Senate-focused super PACs do, so we can count on seeing more of these form as elections draw closer.
10) Empower Central Valley - California's 10th and 21st Congressional Districts
Former Republican Rep. Richard Pombo may have lost his seat in Congress in 2006, but he's still playing a role in congressional politics via Empower Central Valley. The super PAC he formed has pledged to support Golden State GOP Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao in 2014, with a starting goal of spending $1.2 million on those races. Denham and Valadao represent majority Hispanic districts that President Obama carried in the past two elections, making them major Democratic targets -- and making it more likely that ECV will have a critical role to play.
A final note: It is also worth keeping an eye out for another fast-growing category of political groups. Locally focused political non-profits are also on the rise. Large non-profits like Republican-aligned Americans for Prosperity can basically do what super PACs do -- AFP has spent more on TV ads against Democrats so far this election cycle than all other GOP groups combined -- but they don't have to report their donors, and they don't always have to report their political spending. Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire, a Granite State-based non-profit, has already spent six figures on TV ads against Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.